Joël Robuchon, a Star-Spangled Chef in the United States

Famed for his potato purée with lightly salted butter, the Frenchman was far more than a cook. For many years he embodied French cuisine de terroir from Paris to Las Vegas.

“To describe Joël Robuchon as a cook is a bit like calling Pablo Picasso a painter, Luciano Pavarotti a singer, Frederic Chopin a pianist, “wrote American Patricia Wells. The food journalist has lived in France since the 1980s and has written two books about the French chef. “Joël Robuchon will undoubtedly go down as the artist who most influenced the 20th-century world of cuisine.”

From the chef’s native city of Poitiers to Tokyo, whose sushi bars and open-plan kitchens influenced his concept of accessible cuisine, Robuchon elevated simplicity to art status. He opened his first restaurant, Jamin, in Paris in 1981, and served pig’s head ragout with a potato purée. Patricia Wells visited the restaurant three times in 1984, and published her verdict in the International Herald Tribune, claiming that Jamin was “the best restaurant in the world.”

The smooth, buttery potato purée — one of his mother’s recipes — became Robuchon’s iconic dish. Journalist Adam Gopnik praised its simplicity in the New Yorker, writing that “its novelty lies not in the originality of its conception but in the extravagance of its traditionalism, and the perfection of its details.”

The renowned potato purée is on the menu of the Robuchon group’s 20 restaurants. In Las Vegas, where the Frenchman opened one of his L’Atelier restaurants in 2006, it is served with Wagyu beef ribeye. And in New York, which welcomed its own L’Atelier in November 2017, it accompanies grilled sea bass or caramelized, free-range quail with foie gras.

The original recipe calls for Ratte du Touquet potatoes, but this little variety native to Picardy in France does not grow in North America. Chefs in New York therefore use a similar variety found in Pennsylvania. “We tested everything in the kitchen with Mr. Robuchon,” says Frenchman Christophe Bellanca, executive chef at L’Atelier. “He was pleasantly surprised by the quality of products available in the United States.”

The chef, who had 31 Michelin stars to his name, expected his employees to serve the house classics but also gave them the freedom to create their own dishes. However, this did not stop him from visiting all of his restaurants four times a year at the start of each season. “He passed on his taste for local, seasonal cuisine,” says Christophe Bellanca. “Today I wouldn’t dare serve black truffle in summer or asparagus in winter!”

An International Empire

The Robuchon empire is now estimated at 150 million euros, but it was the opening of a restaurant in Japan that really saw the group go international. However, the Frenchman “became a lot closer to the United States over the last years,” says Patricia Wells. “It is every chef’s dream to open a restaurant in New York.”

In the early 2000s, the prodigy chef was approached by the director of the Four Seasons hotel, who asked him to open a branch of L’Atelier on Park Avenue in Manhattan. But Robuchon refused, having seen the chilly welcome reserved by New Yorkers for his friend Alain Ducasse’s restaurant. Instead, he looked to the West Coast where people were less harsh and not as frightening, he said in an interview to the New York Times.

He opened a first restaurant in Las Vegas in 2005, followed by a second in 2006. The ventures were an overnight success. And the Joël Robuchon restaurant in the MGM Grand hotel and casino is still the city’s only triple Michelin-star restaurant. In an interview with France Amérique in October 2017, the chef said “the restaurant has been full from the day the Michelin Guide gave it three stars.”

In 2006, Robuchon finally felt ready for New York and L’Atelier opened at the Four Seasons. The Michelin Guide awarded it two stars, and the restaurant was booked for months in advance. But after six years the chef decided to not renew the lease, citing “tensions between the hotel owner and the management company.”

A First-Class Chef

Following the restaurant’s closure, Robuchon took the reins of the “creative committee” at the Servair culinary studio, heading up a team of five chefs working with Air France to develop in-flight meals. He was named an “ambassador of French gastronomy” three times and designed the menus served in first class on flights between Paris and New York.

The “chef of the century” (as described in the Gault & Millau restaurant guide) made his return to Manhattan on November 1, 2017. The new L’Atelier opened in the Meatpacking District, featuring a red-lit room and 36 chairs positioned overlooking the kitchen. “It took a little longer than we expected,” said Robuchon at the time. “While nothing forced me to return to New York, I always wanted to come back. It is an incredibly difficult environment as competition is intense, young chefs are getting better and better, and New York is a city that takes no prisoners.”

Forever the entrepreneur, the Frenchman was supposed to inaugurate a L’Atelier restaurant in Miami Beach and two others in Midtown in Manhattan in 2019. But despite Joël Robuchon’s passing, “nothing has changed; we will keep going as before,” says Christophe Bellanca. The chef also confirms the three restaurants will open “as planned” in February or March next year. “We are going to do everything we can to uphold Mr. Robuchon’s memory and values.”

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